There's just something about the word "gold" that makes people go nutty. And I'm not just talking about grizzly old prospectors, but everyday, upstanding folks. One day they're sitting quietly at a PTA meeting, the next they're tearing down the road, driving hours to the mountains for the chance to dig through mud to find something shiny. Think gold fever went out with the Conestoga wagon? Think again.
While today the get-rich-quick promises are largely gone, the fun and challenge of the hunt remains. Fortunately for would-be gold diggers in the Washington area, the Commonwealth has plenty of prospecting clubs. "Virginia was the leading gold-producing state before the big California gold rush," says David Spears, of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, "and there's a gold belt that runs up the middle of the Piedmont, from roughly Appomattox to western Stafford County."
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"Once you're bitten by the bug, it's not so much having the gold, it's the looking for it that's exciting," explains local prospector Tom Sablon. "And it's a nice outdoor hobby -- you never know what you're going to find in the creek."
WHAT TO EXPECT: Gold has always had a romantic, renegade image (think far-flung streams and surly prospectors) but when you get right down to it, finding the stuff is backbreaking work. Most beginners get into the game by panning, a time-tested technique that involves squatting next to a stream bed and swirling silt around in a pan. (Since gold is so heavy, it collects at the bottom as you swish the black sand out.) You'll spend a lot of time hunched over your pan picking through the water, so be prepared for sore shoulders and muddy hands.
WHAT TO BRING: Comfortable, durable clothes that you won't mind getting dirty, sturdy boots, a hat and some sunscreen. Pans and other prospecting hardware are usually provided, but it's a good idea to ask in advance. Be sure to pack a change of clothes for the ride back. Nobody wants to sit next to a smelly river rat -- newly rich or not.
COST: Anywhere from $5-$20 per day on fees, gas, food, and other supplies.
WHERE TO STRIKE IT RICH
Central Virginia Gold Prospectors: 540-948-6689. www.infiltec.com/cvgp. The club meets monthly at Small Country Campground in Louisa, and goes out for a day of panning and prospecting afterward. Visitors and first-timers are always welcome. Members recently leased a piece of property exclusively for gold hunting, and are actively organizing more trips and outings in the area.
Gold Mining Museum, Monroe Park: 14421 Gold Dust Parkway, Goldvein. 540-752-5330. www.goldvein.com. Fee varies. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson unearthed Virginia's first nugget here in the late 18th century, setting off a minor gold rush in the area. True or not, this Fauquier County park is now home to a museum dedicated to the region's gold mining past. Hands-on workshops are available for groups of six or more. Participants must be 8 or older. Call ahead for reservations (two weeks' notice is appreciated).
Lake Anna State Park. 6800 Lawyer Road, off Route 208, in Spotsylvania. 540-854-5503. www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/lakeanna.htm. Once home to the Goodwin Gold Mine, this park is still a great place to dig into Virginia's prospecting history. Guides give tours of the old shaft and hands-on panning demonstrations on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day for a $3 fee. Space is limited, and reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Check in at the visitor's center.
Virginia Gold Prospectors. Warrenton. 540-891-9183. e-mail: email@example.com.Tom Sablon leads this hobbyist group, a branch of the Gold Prospectors Association of America (www.goldprospectors.org), on trips all over the state, and welcomes any novices. The club meets on the first Saturday of each month (March-October) at Monroe Park and heads out from there. Call or drop a line for more information.
Know of a great outdoors opportunity in your area? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city and daytime phone number.